Costa del Pym

Nicholas Spice

  • Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
    Macmillan, 216 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 333 39129 2
  • Foreign Land by Jonathan Raban
    Harvill, 352 pp, £9.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 00 222918 8
  • Black Marina by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 157 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 571 13467 X

In a letter to Robert Liddell dated 12 January 1940, Barbara Pym speaks well of her progress on a new novel, Crampton Hodnet, which she finished later that year, but which has only now surfaced for publication: ‘It is about North Oxford and has some bits as good as anything I ever did. Mr Latimer’s proposal to Miss Morrow, old Mrs Killigrew, Dr Fremantle, Master of Randolph College, Mr Cleveland’s elopement and its unfortunate end ... I’m sure all these might be a comfort to somebody.’ As well, it seems to me, call The Rite of Spring restful or Guernica entertaining as expect Crampton Hodnet to administer comfort.

That Barbara Pym should use the word is intriguing and open to two possible interpretations. Either she thought herself to be writing a very different kind of novel from the one she wrote (not an uncommon disjunction where artists whose works have any subliminal drive are concerned), or she is using ‘comfort’ in a circumscribed and impoverished sense, having in mind, for example, the sort of comfort which comes from discovering that others are as badly-off as one believes oneself to be, or indeed worse-off (which is even better). The second of these two interpretations seems right, because it accords so well with the novel’s own philosophy, one which argues for acceptance over rebellion, limitation over release, loss-cutting over risk-taking, and resignation over hope. The redefinition of the nice things in life to bring them within this restricting outlook is Pym’s major project in Crampton Hodnet. The chief casualty is not ‘comfort’ but ‘love’.

The novel is arranged around three love affairs which develop and dwindle within the time-span of a single academic year. Mr Latimer, the new curate of St Botolph’s, imagines briefly that he must marry Miss Jessica Morrow, until Miss Morrow points out his mistake; Anthea Cleveland has her heart temporarily broken by an Old Etonian undergraduate, Simon Beddoes; and Mr Cleveland, Anthea’s father, becomes infatuated with his pupil Barbara Bird, who is quite happy to return the sentiment so long as it does not entail kissing and ‘that sort of thing’. Francis Cleveland’s affair with Barbara is much the most important of the three, because it is potentially adulterous and threatens the equilibrium of the little universe to which he and the other characters belong. Or so they all like to amuse themselves by thinking. In reality, however, this dangerous liaison between Francis Cleveland and Barbara Bird is no more than a titillating pastime, an excuse for gossip and the indulgence of forbidden fantasies. No one, not even Margaret Cleveland, his wife, the only character whose interest in her husband’s behaviour is more than merely idle (though not much more), ever imagines that Francis has any freedom actually to do anything about his passion. As Miss Maude Doggett, his formidable old bully of a spinster aunt, puts it, ‘he can’t break away and start a new life, you know.’ He can’t because Barbara Pym has seen to it that he can’t: first, by endowing him (as she endows all the men in this book) with the weak personality of a spoilt child; secondly, by handicapping the girl he falls for with a crippling hang-up about sex; thirdly, and conclusively, by calling into question at every opportunity the possibility of liberating erotic passion, the existence of which is the postulate upon which his behaviour is based. In this last respect, Pym’s main mouthpiece is Jessica Morrow, Maude Doggett’s companion, 35 years old and on the shelf. Miss Morrow’s determination not to expect too much of life has a definite tinge of the perverse about it, and her pronouncements on love do a good job of shrinking it to a size at which it can manageably be renounced altogether. For example, when, near the end of the novel, Stephen Latimer declares that he has fallen in love, genuinely and for real, Miss Morrow’s response is ‘Oh, I see.’ Barbara Pym continues: ‘Miss Morrow had difficulty in keeping her disappointment out of her voice. She had somehow expected something less ordinary. And yet one must be reasonable and remember that falling in love is never ordinary to the people who indulge in it.’ On marriage, Miss Morrow is Johnsonian: ‘For, although she was in many ways a romantic, Miss Morrow could not help thinking that one usually married people in spite of faults rather than because of virtues.’

It isn’t only through the dour thoughts and utterances of Jessica Morrow that Crampton Hodnet reduces the universe of love to a narrow and shallow place. Each of the three romances which define love for the purposes of the book flower in a tightly-confined space, where the distance between negative and positive feeling is measured by the distance from indifference to lack of indifference. Thus Mr Latimer’s love for Miss Morrow expresses itself in terms of a dilemma the horns of which are whether he might or might not ‘do worse’ than marry her. Anthea Cleveland is ‘comforted’ by the discovery that Simon is as replaceable as any other ephemeral commodity: getting a new man, it turns out, is as easy as getting ‘new clothes, a new hairstyle, a new lipstick’. And when Barbara Bird falls out of a punt on a clandestine outing with Francis Cleveland, Francis is surprised to notice how little it takes to turn ‘a ridiculous mishap into a romantic episode’. In Marvell’s poem ‘The Definition of Love’, the poet declares the impossibility of union with his beloved, elaborating the point through a number of ingenious conceits, including the notion that only when heaven and earth are conflated will he and his lady be able to join in love:

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